The day Seattle-filmmakers Amy Benson and Scott Squire met Shanta Darnal in Nepal in 2008, they were mesmerized by the smart, confident young girl. Right away they decided to follow Shanta, who then had just won a scholarship from an American non-governmental organization (NGO). She planned to become a doctor, her dream profession. But she never did.
Shanta killed herself at 16, one year shy of her high school graduation. Benson and Squire were shocked by the news. The plan to film each year in Kathmandu to track Shanta’s progress and growth fell apart.
“The NGO told us, well, there are other girls! Tell the stories of the other girls, why tell her story?” recalled Benson in her and Squire’s production company Nonfiction Media headquartered in the International District. “But then who’s going to tell her story? Clearly it was an important story.”
After seven years in the making, the documentary film titled Drawing the Tiger will be screened at Local Sightings Film Festival produced by the Northwest Film Forum this month. This film is the married couple’s first feature-length film. It took a number of turns and going out of cul-de-sac before they agreed on the best angle in which to create this film.
“We thought about telling the story of how NGOs are full of it and not doing good work. Then we went with the suicide angle, but we ruled that out because we’re never going to be able to explain why girls in Nepal are killing themselves,” Benson said. “Shanta was just one person, and that’s what it came down to.”
The final result became an intimate portrait of Shanta’s life that was filled with determination and hope, and the impact of her death in her family and village.
Prior to this, Benson and Squire’s bread and butter had been making promotional short films for NGOs. After Shanta’s incident and looking at how the NGO handled the matter, however, the filmmakers were disillusioned with the industry. The couple then decided to go with their guts, ran a few fundraising campaigns, and told Shanta’s story the best they could with the cooperation of her family, most of whom cannot read and write. Benson and Squire were also joined by a production crew of local Nepalese filmmakers and journalists.
Shanta’s life and death as portrayed in Drawing the Tiger problematicize a widespread quote that has been attributed to several individuals: “If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” The well-meaning quote, when thought about carefully, is full of old stereotypes of women’s roles and the pressure to fulfill those roles. According to a 2012 study conducted by Nepal Health Sector Support Programme, the nation’s suicide rate is highest in women ages 15 to 24. The study cites stress due to raised lifestyle expectations and educational pressures as some of the negative sides of modern developments and urbanization.
Though Benson and Squire said the film focuses more on Shanta and her family rather than the faulty operations of the NGO who gave her a scholarship, they couldn’t help but think of ways things could have turned out differently. Benson said Shanta might have felt isolated because she was not the same person before she went to school in the big city. Returning home to her unchanging village on school holidays might have been a shock. This, then, begs the question that maybe that particular NGO and probably many others should do more to prepare the children they are helping as well as the families to cope with possible changes in the family dynamics when one member gets an education others do not have.
“Her mother told me that they didn’t know each other anymore,” said Benson.
Squire said that they never tried to find solutions to the problem exposed in the film as they acknowledged the issues are so much bigger than them. From the beginning of the filming process, they were careful not to fall into the trap of a white savior complex, Half the Sky-esque style of telling the story of developing nations and its problems.
“We felt like we have this great intimacy with the family but we also realized that there’s a power dynamic,” he said. “Maybe it was harder for them to say no to us. We got to be sensitive about how much we were asking, how intimately we were probing.”
The Darnal family watched the completed film a day before the earthquake hit the country. They laughed and cried, and gave Benson and Squire their blessing.
“There was this pressure, especially in the beginning when she had just died that people were looking for one straightforward answer,” Benson said. “We hope that this film will help people realize that there are many layers to her life—to our lives.”
‘Drawing the Tiger,’ shows September 25 at Local Sightings at Northwest Film Forum. For more info, visit www.brownpapertickets.com/e/2252279.